The Development of Female Muay Thai Promotion in Thailand Part 1: Beauty Focus

This post has been in the works for quite some time. In fact, my writings on this topic spent around a year in draft form, beginning as opinions on a few individual events but then branching out and blending together to form a bigger picture of female Muay Thai promotion in Thailand as a whole. My delay in putting it out there is partly due to this, but mostly because I’m extremely fussy about what I write and spend far too long working and re-working things over instead of just publishing them. During this time, Melissa Ray of Muay Thai on the Brain wrote a post entitled ‘Muay Ying in Thailand: Is the Glass Half-Empty or Half-Full?‘, which I’d like to direct you to. Although some of the opinions voiced here don’t correlate with some of hers, her post is important because it gives her voice and invokes discussion. That’s what I want to do here. I’d also like to link to ‘Women’s Muay Thai in Thailand‘ by Niamh Griffin, writer of Inspiring Sports Women.

In October 2014, the ‘Angel Fight Extreme’ event took place (you can watch the entire show on Youtube here). It was the second show by ‘World Muay Thai Angels‘, which is a promotion with all-female fights and the first of its kind in Thailand. Their first event was a tournament at 57kg earlier that year, which included 16 fighters from around the world and ended with Chomannee Sor. Tehirun being awarded the 1 million baht cash prize and a brand new Toyota Vios. This was most certainly the biggest prize ever awarded to a female fighter here, a place where it’s not uncommon for a female to be paid less than a male fighter for fighting on the exact same show. The show also featured female referees, which was great and refreshing to see.

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(Right to left) First row: Laurene Tue (France), Teresa Wintermyr (Sweden), Sin Yi Tang (Hong Kong), Joanna Jedrzejcz (Poland). Second Row: Iman Ghbalou (Morocco), Sindy Huyer (Italy), Sandra Mandret (France), Shelomentseva Asya (Russia). Third Row: Ilona Yakubovich (Belarus), Duannapa Mor. RattanaBundit (Thailand), Wendy Jessica Talbot (New Zealand), Jessica Sanchez (Spain). Fourth Row: Zahrah Memom (England), Ilinca Serbu (Romania), Chommanee Sor. Tehirun (Thailand), Su Jeong Lim (Korea).

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When the tournament was first announced, it was advertised on Facebook as follows:

“Muay Thai Angels is a new Female Muay Thai tournament set in Thailand, with 16 fighters from 15 Countries Worldwide all good looking girls and good fighters!…”

I was rather disappointed by this because it mentioned that they were ‘good-looking girls’ before ‘good fighters’. It’s uncomfortable enough for me that we feel the need to use their aesthetics as a selling point (not that this is anything new in our world), but for it to be the primary one seemed a little disappointing to me. If it were a male tournament, would it need to be mentioned that they are all ‘good-looking’? That being said, I realise that women are marketed differently than men in general and that this gave the show a unique selling point that no other Muay Thai promotion had to offer. As female fighters, we’re constantly battling various stereotypes as well as being judged or valued by our looks. Rather than trying to break those ideas, it seemed that World Muay Thai Angels was almost reinforcing them. That being said, one  unfortunate stereotype of female fighters is that they are mostly ‘butch’ or ‘look like men’ and I can see how the World Muay Thai Angels is actually challenging this particular stereotype by showcasing the beauty and femininity of the participants in their shows. While this is of course positive, I think that the promotion should be all-inclusive and open to any female fighter, regardless of her appearance. All female fighters should have the opportunity to fight on a show like this. We should not dismiss one form of beauty or femininity for another and we should strive to promote the realisation that women are so much more than their looks.

The lead-up to the first World Muay Thai Angels show was preceded by the ‘Miss Muay Siam’ beauty contest, which took place on 21st August 2013. Muay Siam is Thailand’s main Muay Thai newspaper and the event was organised to promote its 27th anniversary. Both events seemed to come under the umbrella of ‘Sud Suay Muay Thai’ which translates to ‘the most beautiful Muay Thai‘. After watching a commercial for Sud Suay Muay Thai and further translating it, Sylvie wrote this post, which gives more detail about the meaning behind it. She felt that ‘the beauties of Muay Thai‘ was more accurate as it seems to be talking about beautiful women doing Muay Thai, rather than women doing beautiful Muay Thai, and I agree. There is a distinct difference between the two, but the existence of Sud Suay Muay Thai is certainly progression of some sort. Along with this clip, Sud Suay Muay Thai aired two short episodes on Channel 7, the first on Jade Marissa Luktupfah and the second on Sawsing Sor. Sopit. It seemed as though they were going to do one for each contestant in the Miss Muay Siam contest, but I haven’t seen anything from them since.

The Miss Muay Siam beauty consisted of eight Thai female fighters; Sawsing Sor, Sopit, Peach Purahong Sit. Ja Daeng, Namtaan Por. Muangpet, ZaZaa Sor. Aree, Jade Marissa Luktupfah, Duannapa Mor. Rattana Bundit, Chommanee Sor. Tehirun and Bulimbuen Bor. Krungthep Thonburi. The event involved having them dressed in outfits that were personalised versions of Muay Thai gear, i.e. shorts with long, flowing skirts attached to them, sequins, glitter, high heels and of course, a large amount of make up and hairspray. From what I understand, it functioned as any other Thai beauty pageant would, whereby each member of the audience had to give flowers to the candidate that they perceived as ‘the most beautiful’ and the one who’d collected the most flowers at the end was crowned ‘Miss Muay Siam’. She was also given a belt to signify her title as such. The winner was Peach, who previously trained at my gym a couple of years ago. After winning the competition, Peach made several TV appearances and fought on the Max Muay Thai show. She was the first female to fight on that show. She also featured in the Muay Thai Angels shows, firstly as a referee and secondly as a fighter. Clearly, the title of ‘Miss Muay Siam’ has gone a long way towards promoting Peach.

Some photos from the Miss Muay Siam beauty contest (click to enlarge)

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The idea of beauty pageants has always made me slightly uncomfortable. John Oliver’s episode of Last Week Tonight which brilliantly and hilariously tore apart the Miss America contest pretty much nailed my thoughts on competitions like these. He opens by questioning its very existence, asking ‘how the fuck is this still happening?‘ Well, it’s just started to happen in Muay Thai and while Miss Muay Siam isn’t quite Miss America, the principle is the same.

The idea of girls parading for the purpose of being judged solely on their physical appearance is unsettling and offensive to me, but specifically for Muay Thai fighters even more so. Couldn’t those fighters have been recognised and celebrated without being objectified? The Miss Muay Siam contest may have positive intentions of promoting female fighters, but in fact, reinforces negative and oppressive ideas about them. I could write for days about whether or not beauty pageants are harmful or empowering for women, but it is not the simple idea of a beauty pageant that bothers me most – it’s that these fighters were being promoted and judged for their outer beauty in lieu of their skills or abilities as fighters, even by an association that exists for the purpose of promoting Muay Thai. Of course, if female fighters are happy to take part in competitions such as these, it’s their prerogative and they should not be judged for doing so. Feminism stands to allow women to do whatever they want, including dressing up and wearing make up, but as a choice for themselves, not a requirement for the approval or judgement of others.

Along with the contest, there was a photo shoot which took place for the benefit of creating a ‘Miss Muay Siam’ 2014 calendar, which was available in a special edition of Muay Siam Extra (see below).

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The 2015 calendar featured Chommanee alone, as she has become quite the superstar since winning the Muay Thai Angels tournament, making lots of TV appearances. Rightly so, she is an excellent fighter. However, I was a little disappointed by some of the calendar shots. In some photos, she was in Muay Thai shorts and handwraps, posing with her fists clenched; in others, she wore shorts and a sports bra, striking some softer poses with her hands behind her back or on her hips. In one bizarre shot, she was on all fours.

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Promotion for the most recent World Muay Thai Angels show, ‘Angel Fight Extreme’ involved glamour-style photo shoots similar to the ones for Miss Muay Siam, where the fighters were given stylists and hair and make-up artists who dolled them up in dresses and heels. I find this kind of thing rather awkward, but I admit that it’s down to the fact that I wouldn’t be comfortable doing something like this myself, and that is not the case for all female fighters. I grew up as a tomboy and recall telling my mother as a child ‘I will never wear a dress, not even for my wedding!‘ I was also painfully shy and couldn’t bear to be in front of a camera. While I am certainly not quite that extreme now, those traits still exist and the idea of being photographed in that way, let alone being dressed by someone else, makes me cringe. That being said, this isn’t about my personal preference! Many girls would love it and the Thai fighters on this show seemed to really enjoy it. Kelly Creegan of Sitmonchai Gym, an Irish fighter who fought on the most recent Muay Thai Angels show, ‘Angel Fight Extreme’, wrote a post on her blog about her experience of the photo shoot and how she felt about it. She also spoke about how the Thai fighters seemed to have more personalised outfits, whereas the foreign fighters were put in ‘random, girly dresses‘. You can see this in the poster below, which shows all of the fighters. The Thai fighters displayed more variety in their styles. Saifaah wore a baggy, hip-hop outfit with a beanie had and chain necklace, while Peach (Kelly’s opponent) wore a leather jacket with black leggings and dark, smokey make up. Perhaps they just didn’t know what to do with the foreign fighters as they weren’t as familiar with them or their personalities.

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What Lommanee’s Presence in ‘Angel Fight Extreme’ means

I was pleased to see that ‘Angel Fight Extreme’ included Lommanee Sor. Hirun (otherwise known as Chalarmnoi), who is a ‘tom’ and identifies as male on her Facebook profile. It was fantastic that she was included in the show, as it showed that the crack in the doorway that the promotion had first opened was beginning to widen. Having seen the previous photo shoots that had taken place for the fighters, I was concerned that she would have to adhere to the awkward, beauty-queen-style image that had been given to some of the other girls involved. Surprisingly, this was not the case. Lommanee was actually put in an awesome suit, tie and shoes combo, and looked great in it. Sylvie von Duuglas-Ittu wrote more about this in her post, ‘Lommanee Tom Female Beauty – Muay Thai Angels Shows Support’. It was wonderful to see that Lommanee was allowed to project her own form of beauty. Hopefully, there will be more of this to come in their future shows.

Left: Lommanee, Right: Her in comparison to the other Thai fighters on the show

Collectively, all of the recent, highly-publicised promotion of female Muay Thai has been beauty-focused. As a fighter, I find this quite off-putting because I just want to be recognised for the way I fight and I resent the idea that how I look should have anything to do with that. However, beauty-focused promotion is still promotion, and it does seem to be having at least some positive effect on female Muay Thai. Niamh Griffin spoke about it in her post, ‘Muay Thai Angels, A Step Forwards or Backwards?‘ which includes the following quote by writer Joe Cummings after he attended one of the shows.“I was skeptical going in but I think it’s a novel approach that works. It’s reaching an audience that had a hard time accepting female Muay Thai fighters, including a lot of women, who are being pulled in by the beauty side of it and then are held by the athleticism.” This style of promotion could be largely due to an attempt to change the image of Muay Thai  in Thailand from something that is often viewed as a ‘low-class’ to something that appeals to the middle and upper class and can be used for fitness. Clearly, this has worked to some degree because interest is growing and new, fitness-focused Muay Thai gyms are opening up and enjoying success. You can read more about that in An American in Thailand: Muay Thai for the Rich by Lindsey Newhall and Gender and Class – Muay Thai for the Masses by Sylvie von Duuglas-Ittu. This kind of modernization and forward thinking is also displayed by the existence of the new Lumpini stadium.

While I’m happy and genuinely excited that things are happening for female Muay Thai in Thailand, I do resent the fact that fighters have to be ‘glammed-up’ for this to happen. Ideally, female fighters would be represented as just that, just as male fighters are, and their appearance would be irrelevant. At the moment, that clearly isn’t the case, but I do appreciate the fact that the existence of World Muay Thai Angels and Sud Suay Muay Thai show that effort is being made to push female Muay Thai to reach a wider audience than it previously has in Thailand. Let’s keep pushing for more progress.

See the second part of this post, ‘The Development of Female Muay Thai Promotion in Thailand Part 2: Stadium Fights

 

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One thought on “The Development of Female Muay Thai Promotion in Thailand Part 1: Beauty Focus

  1. Pingback: The Development of Female Muay Thai Promotion in Thailand Part 2: Stadium Fights | Under The Ropes

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